The notion of an acclaimed kitchen run by a woman is no longer remarkable. But it is not so commonplace either. The most visible chefs in the gastronomy terrain are, still, men — a grim fact that was cemented by last year’s #MichelinToo debacle that highlighted the paltry ratio of females to males who were awarded new stars; among the 57 French restaurants, only two were helmed by female chefs.
Gender imbalance in the kitchen is an issue that has been exhaustively talked about yet hardly tackled. Though disputed, the segregating concept in which women cook at home for the family while men reap fame and wealth as celebrity chefs in leading restaurants is still the norm. The toxic grit of a restaurant kitchen, as exaggerated in Gordon Ramsay-starring “reality” shows, is seemingly testosterone-driven, thus associating the kitchen as a somewhat male-only environment.
Chef Anne-Sophie Pic is out to change that.
To step into La Dame de Pic is to experience a glimpse of Pic’s vision. The 49-year-old’s new restaurant, lodged within Raffles Hotel’s freshly refurbished main building, is an airy chamber blushed in a pastel palette of light pinks and plums, all of which are Pic’s favourite colours. In the daytime, shafts of sunlight stream in from the arched windows overlooking the hotel’s grass courtyard and unto the curved velvet settees paired with tables lined with smooth charcoal leather — the plush backdrop to Pic’s botanic-infused masterpieces. Masterpieces she dubs as “feminine cuisine.”
La Dame de Pic
Pic’s signature berlingots (left); and gariguette strawberry and rosat geranium dessert (right).
Unusual flavours, plated with dainty impeccability, are peppered with edible flower petals. Pic’s dishes are meant to incite a sort of visceral warmth. “I perhaps use more fragrant ingredients than most male chefs would,” she says in an interview last year. Her berlingots — little green pasta parcels stuffed with molten French fondue — for instance, are a Pic spin on the traditional Drôme mini ravioli that she enjoyed as a child growing up in hometown Valence. The herb of grace and fresh verbena she uses lend an aromatic scent to it.
“I think cuisine is a question of taste, a romantic complexity,” says Pic in her gentle French lilt following her debut tasting lunch at La Dame de Pic. “In that sense, even though it’s not a matter of gender, I really believe that my cuisine is linked to my femininity and personality. It’s more about myself.”
Equally as central to Pic is the elegance of her work. Her dishes, often unassuming in their ingredients, are plated in graceful poise. “To be a great chef means to be able to enhance simple products,” she muses as a guest judge on Netflix’s “The Final Table” after choosing the humble egg as the main ingredient fo the show’s competing chefs to spin a dish out of. “What is very important for me is I pay a lot of attention to the visual.” Her wild turbot comes flanked with zucchinis, of which are rendered in different textures, encircling the fish in a pleasing balance, before warm green apple broth is poured over. Her berry-replete palate cleanser — bourbon geranium sorbet studded with gariguette strawberries — forms a snaking, curlicue ‘S’ (for ‘strawberries’, apparently) that beautifully cracks under the light tap of a dessert spoon.
La Dame de Pic
Inside chef Pic’s newly opened La Dame de Pic at Raffles Hotel.
The ultra-femininity extends beyond the plate. The soft-spoken chef perched on a seat in a secluded corner of her restaurant in her slim-fitted whites: a crisp shirt, its collars, unlike the customary starched ones, were delicately pointed. Little pleats ran from the shoulders down to where they met the white apron tied around her waist with a ribbon-like knot. Above, a sweeping relief of an intricate peony is etched on the ceiling, where in the middle, a gold cluster of a tiered chandelier, stamped with spade icons, cascade down the centre of the room. The spades are, in fact, a nod to the wordplay the restaurant name connotes: In French, La Dame de Pic may be misheard as “la dame de pique”, which translates to “the queen of spades”.
Pic is, undisputedly, a gastronomy monarch. Regarded as the grande dame of French cuisine, she was the first French female chef in 50 years to be accorded with three Michelin stars in 2007; the fourth in the existing history of the restaurant-grading behemoth at the time. The award came following the tumultuous decade Pic went through in reviving Maison Pic, her family restaurant in Valence, which was started by her grandfather before passed over to her father. Both patriarchs retained the restaurant’s three stars. But when her father suddenly passed away, Pic, at the age of 23 with non-existent kitchen experience, had to take over the kitchen.
“When I started, I was ashamed to be a woman. I felt I had no legitimacy,” she says. “I worked hard to be respected by men.” Despite being the heiress of a lineage of grands chefs, helming her family’s 130-year-old culinary dynasty did not occur to young Pic. Abruptly bequeathed with the legacy, she learned on the go. She boldly upended the restaurant’s classic dishes with her modern take on French fare, earning back the three stars that were lost. And in 2012, she launched her first La Dame de Pic in Paris; the first restaurant of which she could truly call her own.
Pic is fully aware that her success story is of a rarity. “If I didn’t back then, I’m saying it louder now. The industry needs more women because it should be a beautiful complementary between men and women at work,” she asserts.
Chef Pic, 49, was the first French female chef in 50 years to be accorded with three Michelin stars in 2007. She is also a mother of one.
Asked what she thought what more women in restaurant kitchens would bring to the industry, Pic paused in earnest before answering, “Women listen more to their intuition. Most men manage the only way they know how. They see it as a competition, but there are other ways of managing — not only shouting, pushing, being nervous. It’s not easy, believe me, to make people change their minds. I’m still working on it.” Pic then describes her kitchen as a “quiet and respectful” one; she tries to “take care of her people, like a mother would [of her children]”.
Motherhood has helped shape Pic’s way of running her business. After giving birth to her son, she acknowledges the sensitivity and quiet confidence it lends to nurturing her team, her guests. The female perspective is needed in the food industry more than ever, she posits.
“What is very important now is to transmit. Women should be more self-confident, continue their work, follow their intuition and lead to change that way,” Pic says. “We need to take another step up.” And that is exactly what she is doing. Quietly but assertively.
La Dame de Pic, Raffles Hotel Singapore, 1 Beach Road.
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